Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Hollywood Was Doing "Alternative-Facts" Before Kellyanne Made Them Controversial

I wasn't planning on writing about a second-rate movie this morning but that's what I'm doing.  A college-degreed guy mistaking the movie Inherit the Wind for accurate history is good evidence of the role that Hollywood and show biz have had in creating, not only the persona of Donald Trump but his great tool for building fascism "alternative-facts".

Despite many of its fans, many of them being holders of college and university degrees, believing the movie represents history, if its authors intention was to give people that impression - which I believe the script writers intended - they were as loose with the truth as Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer, Steve Bannon and, in an ever longer stream of Trumpian liars, Stephen Miller are.  Lies you might like are as much lies as lies you don't like.  None of them are any species of facts, none of them are true.

Just a few of the lies sold in the movie.

The trial didn't just happen because a brave soul, a dedicated science teacher, chose to flout the law and teach Darwinian evolution to his high school class.  The ACLU had advertised for someone to do that so they could press a test case.  Local citizens of Dayton Tennesse, including the superintendent of schools approached John Scopes to break the state law so the town could get the publicity that the trial would bring.  And that worked, like a charm.  It was not the product of an outraged preacher riling up his flock, it was a publicity stunt.   For the record, the law should have been tested - especially if they were successful in getting it overturned by the Supreme Court.  As it actually was, they miscalculated and the ACLU's plan probably had a role in setting back the teaching of evolutionary biology in public schools by several decades.  It would have been a lot better if they'd waited for a different court.

William Jennings Bryan was not a right-wing, narrow-minded bigot, while not without his flaws,  he was one of the best of the populist egalitarians.  Clarence Darrow, radical lawyer, was certainly not without his flaws.

Scopes was not jailed after he was indicted.  He traveled to New York to meet with members of the ACLU.   He was never given a prison sentence.  Bryan never argued for a harsh penalty, arguing against even the monetary fine that was imposed.  Bryan offered to pay the fine, himself.

Scopes didn't have rocks thrown at him, he wasn't attacked, he was on friendly terms with people of both sides.  Apparently during the breaks in the trial he often went swimming with young men on the prosecution side, including Bryan's son.

And, sorry, movie-based history buffs, there was no romance between Scopes and the daughter of the local fundamentalist minister, that is sheer Broadway-Hollywood fiction, what my brother and I during a round of wasting hours we now regret with Charlie Chan movies on TV came to call “the Caucasian love-interest” plot cliché.

The book that Scopes taught from, the widely used - in fact state mandated - Civic Biology*, shows just what Bryan's opposition to Darwinian theory was.  It taught scientific racism, inequality, eugenics as science.  When you read Bryan's final speech that Darrow blocked him from giving, he did give some of the contemporary criticism and skepticism about evolution but his strongest attacks were on the anti-democratic nature of it and its advocacy of the salubrious effects of violent struggle that would result in the deaths of people.  I suspect that in association with the trial,  Clarence Darrow wanted to disassociate himself, somewhat, from that central aspect of Darwinism as a legal and political entity.  I don't think the timing of his article, The Eugenics Cult, published a year after the case, was any accident.  Accustomed to reading scientists and academic advocates and critics of eugenics, Darrow's is a pretty weird, opportunistic trial-lawyerly critique meant to sway by derision rather than fact.  Interestingly, nowhere in his article does Darrow mention any of the major figures in the history of the creation of eugenics or even the contemporary scientific establishment that supported it, choosing people whose views were easily characterized for derision.   It reminds me that you can agree with someone on general facts while deploring their lapses in honesty on even important matters.

I do have to wonder if the trial happened in a different state if Bryan might have had more to say about the racial, ethnic, economic and social inequality that were an intrinsic part of Darwinism - natural selection - and the inevitable damage belief in the theory would do to democracy.

After his conviction Scopes was not fired, he was given the opportunity to remain in his teaching job but chose, instead to take advantage of the offer from those defending him to go to grad school at the University of Chicago, where he got a graduate degree in geology, went to work for oil and gas companies and converted to Catholicism when he married.   The Catholic Church was about the strongest opponent of eugenics in the world.

Clarence Darrow was not vilified by local folks who welcomed the publicity.  He was welcomed by a large and cheering crowd when he came into town and given an honorary banquet at the Progressive Club, as Bryan was.   He was not a lone champion of science and reason, he had a large team of legal help to aid him.  He was also disappointed when he tried to get Bryan to expose himself as a Biblical-literalist, fundamentalist.  I think that Bryan's thinking was far more nuanced and sophisticated than a conceited, sophisticated guy like Darrow could have been bothered to understand.  That's still the case, today.

Inherit the Wind is an ideological play which uses the general outlines of a well known story and lies about the inconvenient details of actual history to create propaganda.   I suspect that by that time, even before TV had trained the entire country to mistake fiction for history, the authors of it knew that even allegedly educated folk, certainly lots of them show-folk, wouldn't have read a word of the actual history of the trial and that their fiction was about all they were going to get on the case.  That habit, on full display on blogs from right to left, is one of the most discouraging things I've learned from my time reading blogs.  The simple fact that show-biz ain't real doesn't seem to have taken hold in even those with advanced degrees in the hard sciences.

Inherit The Wind is second-rate theater, full of cliches and stock characters, it insults reality because while the general outlines of the story might fit into their desired narrative, the real people in what really happened were far from the bigots and champions of truth that the very much overrated actor Spencer Tracy and the better actor, Fredric March,  played.  That college allegedly-educated people of any ideology could mistake that as accurate history is, in every way, appalling.

One thing you true-believers can take some comfort in, if this is too disillusioning for you, the figure standing in for H. L. Mencken was probably about as much of a cynical asshole as he was in reality.

One of the most important things for the United States to learn from the elevation of Donald Trump through the lying make-believe of TV and pop culture is that a population fed on a constant diet of "alternative facts" is a danger to equality, democracy and a decent life.  It might teach us that life, itself, depends on the population having a sufficient grasp of reality and the truth to reject what the TV addled American people have gotten.  Theatrical distortion of history and reality isn't without serious, real effects in real life.

*  Apparently the state of Tennessee required the teaching of biology from a book which, teaching evolution, would have guaranteed that you could either break the law or shirk your legal responsibility to use it.  Such is the quality of so much state legislation.

Update:  I have never, not any time I saw one of his movies, ever believed a single second of Spencer Tracy's acting.  He's one of the most over-rated movie actors in the blighted history of bad movie acting.

Update 2:  Someone points out something I'd never read, that John T. Scopes admitted to a reporter that he hadn't, in fact, broken the law because he skipped the lesson in evolution.  Apparently the lawyers wanting a conviction so they could get the law declared unconstitutional on appeal, coached the student-witnesses to lie about that.   I'll look up more on that when I've got the time - a book I don't have is the source - but it wouldn't surprise me if even that part of the story is not what it's supposed to be.


  1. The authors of the play/movie said they were aiming at McCarthyism, not religious fundamentalism or Darwin. And yeah,the movie tells you as much about history as a Western.

    1. I think what they were doing was writing a play to assert the vague sense of liberalishness, the set of attitudes and social and regional class tokens that is about as deep as most peoples' mid-20th century liberalishness went. It was an obvious hit on the North-Eastern, Hollywood caricature of Southern-white-fundamentalism, backwardness, yahooism, etc. I would guess that unless they'd read or been told it was supposed to be about McCarthyism they'd never have drawn that from watching either the play or the movie.

      I had an argument at Eschaton a number of years back with two of the smarter regular, both of them with doctorates and careers in science, one as a university level researcher-teacher, the other as a teacher at an elite school who were furious when I pointed out Inherit the Wind was a more or less complete distortion of the history, the participants in the trial and much else. The emotional attachment they got to a movie that reinforced their prejudices was so strong that I don't think one of them ever "spoke" to me again after that.

      I do think the most important lesson from that is that even the "reality-community" in their self-regarding devotion to fact will buy the most blatant of "alternative facts" on the basis of their preference as anyone else. Also, that it's dangerous, in the face of the impossibility of formal education ever competing with Hollywood and TV, to tell lies about history. And just about any historical-fiction is going to contain such lies unless the authors are unusually careful and honest.

  2. It's a piece of crap, tendentious and melodramatic and pedantic, all at once. I've never found the explanation "McCarthyism" persuasive, except it does point away from being an accurate portrayal of either religious fundamentalism or of anti-evolution attitudes.

    Mostly it amuses me how many people think it's a documentary. WWiI vets complained about movies where John Wayne (who didn't fight, unlike Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable, among others) won the war singlehandedly (their characterization), and of course generations of Americans think the Western is more historical than history (nobody liked the skating rink in "Heaven's Gate," even though that was much more accurate than any "quick draw" shootout in the street).

    I've written about it before, but it's sad how many people think "Inherit the Wind" is "a true story." It's barely even based on one.

    And yes, the worst thing about the Trump Era, as it was under W., is the insistence that "our" facts are true, and 'their' facts are lies.

  3. "I have never, not any time I saw one of his movies, ever believed a single second of Spencer Tracy's acting. He's one of the most over-rated movie actors in the blighted history of bad movie acting."

    The jokes just write themselves.

    1. So, what do you consider to be the great acting that Tracy was filmed doing?

      I'll quote one of the lines that Hepburn had, "You don't need to be able to lay an egg to know a bad one."

      I put that in because I knew it would get you clutching those well tugged pearls. They strung with titanium?

  4. "(nobody liked the skating rink in "Heaven's Gate,)"

    Oh really? I've written on numerous occasions, professionally, about how HEAVEN'S GATE is a misunderstood masterpiece.

  5. Five words, moron.


    1. Never saw it. Maybe I will. I suspect I'd prefer Lee Marvin who was a far better actor than Tracy.

      I never once saw him in anything where it didn't seem entirely phony. I rewatched Desk Set a while back and though I once liked it I found it unwatchable. Both of them, though I did like Joan Blondell. I doubt I could sit through another Tracy Hepburn movie again. Once you've seen through someone you can't go back. You'll never have had that experience as you've never seen through anyone.

  6. "Never saw it"

    Only one of his most famous and acclaimed performances.

    Therefore you're entitled to make sweeping ignorant generalizations about yet another genuine artist you inexplicably feel superior to.

    1. Let me see, as compared to Lee Marvin playing Hickey in Iceman Cometh, him playing Shaleen in Cat Ballou, him playing quite different roles in a number of things - whenever I saw Spencer Tracy I saw Spencer Tracy playing Spencer Tracy playing someone else. Essentially the same acting ability as Hepburn who always played a Connecticut aristocrat playing someone, only in her case with even less variety.

      I do love to piss you off by dissing your idols.

  7. "whenever I saw Spencer Tracy I saw Spencer Tracy playing Spencer Tracy playing someone else. Essentially the same acting ability as Hepburn who always played a Connecticut aristocrat playing someone, only in her case with even less variety.

    I do love to piss you off by dissing your idols. "

    Spencer Tracy is not one of my idols, you cretinous snob. He's one of many artists, in a variety of fields, whose work I admire and respect.

    If I told you who my actual idols are, you'd have to Google every single fucking one of them.

    1. Imagine if I dissed one of your idols. You might have a stroke. Oh, wait, I'll bet I can guess who's on the top of that list, why, Simps, it's you!

      Shouldn't you be making fun of some of those other Jews who Stalin murdered August 12, 1952, by which time all those Hollywood hacks were out of prison and flogging their crappy scripts.

      Let me guess, if they'd made a dozen movies about the Murdered Poets instead of the Hollywood 10 you'd be making fun of the Hollywood hacks. You're so superficial.

  8. "Imagine if I dissed one of your idols. You might have a stroke. Oh, wait, I'll bet I can guess who's on the top of that list, why, Simps, it's you!"

    HAHAHAHAHAH!!!! This from the person who famously told me that self-deprecating humor -- which you're completely incapable of -- was actually about egomania.

    Keep digging, moron.

    1. Oh, well, you wouldn't understand. I don't care for talking about myself, it doesn't come naturally to me as it does you. I'll deprecate myself when I'm done deprecating you, though that's a task that will probably never be done.

      Go on, Simps, make fun of the rest of them like you did Leib Kvitko, after that there are the ones who he murdered in the "Doctor's plot" and the other tens of millions he murdered as the Hollywood hacks were carrying water for him. You've got a real thing for Stalinists.

    2. Oh, you'll like this one, Simps, someone cited the American Film Institute's list of 25 greatest, male and female, that have both Tracy and Hepburn on them. Well, I notice they've also got such greats as the big chunk of wood John Wayne on it and, what this? No Al Pacino? No Robert DeNero? No Meryl Streep? Yeah, really convincing.

      They even managed to get James Dean on it, how could they tell? The kid flamed out before he was tested.

      Hollywood, huh.